The brain and spinal cord are surrounded by layers of tissue. These layers are called the meninges. When these layers becomes swollen and irritated, it is called meningitis. The swelling in these layers can put pressure on the brain and spinal cord. The most common forms of meningitis include:
- Viral meningitis
- Aseptic meningitis —caused by a variety of medical conditions except bacteria
- Bacterial meningitis —generally the most serious infection
The Spinal Cord and Meninges
Viral meningitis is caused by a virus such as:
- Herpes viruses
- Varicella virus, also known as chickenpox
- Rubella viruses
- West Nile virus
Viruses can be spread in numerous ways including:
- Contact with fluids from the cough or sneeze of an infected person
- Contact with feces from an infected person
- Close personal contact with someone who is sick
- Through insect bites
Factors that increase your risk of viral meningitis include:
- Conditions that weaken the immune system, such as HIV infection
- Immunosuppressive treatments
- Crowded, unsanitary conditions
- Season: summer and early fall
Symptoms of viral meningitis include:
- High fever
- Stiff, sore neck
- Sensitivity to bright lights
Symptoms in newborns and infants include:
- High fever—especially unexplained high fever
- Feeding poorly or refusing to eat
- Tautness or bulging of soft spots between skull bones
- Difficulty awakening
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. The doctor will focus on the nervous system.
To help rule out other causes of the inflammation, such as a tumor, your doctor may need pictures of the brain, spine, and skull. These pictures can be created with:
- MRI scan
- CT scan
Viral meningitis has similar symptoms as bacterial meningitis. To make sure you do not have bacterial meningitis, the following tests of your bodily fluids may be done:
- Blood tests
- Urine tests
- Sputum tests
- Lumbar puncture (spinal tap)
- Tests of pus from skin infections
- Rest and fluids
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen
- Note: Aspirin is not recommended for children or teens with a current or recent viral infection. This is because of the risk of Reye syndrome. Ask your doctor which other medicines are safe for your child.
- Antibiotics—may be given for 2-3 days while the doctor waits for test results; antibiotics are not effective for viral infection
- IV antiviral drugs—for severe infections that respond to antiviral drugs—few viruses can be treated this way
If you are diagnosed with viral meningitis, follow your doctor's instructions .
You can not control where a virus goes after it is in your body. However, you can take steps to prevent viral infections:
Wash your hands
- If you are in close contact with an infected person
- After you change the diaper of an infected infant
- Regularly wash objects and surfaces touched by children. Use a diluted bleach solution.
- Ask your doctor about appropriate vaccinations, especially if you've never had measles, mumps, rubella, and chickenpox.
To prevent infections spread by mosquito bites:
- Follow public health recommendations for reducing mosquitoes near your home.
- Take steps to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes. Use insect repellent and appropriate clothing when outdoors.
- Avoid areas or being outside when mosquitoes are prevalent.
If you are contemplating a pregnancy:
- Be sure you are protected from common diseases like chickenpox. Ask your doctor about recommended vaccinations.
- Avoid all contact with rodents during pregnancy.
Meningitis Foundation of America
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Public Health Agency of Canada
Meningitis. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/meningitis/index.html. Updated March 15, 2012. Accessed June 17, 2013.
Viral meningitis. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/meningitis/viral.html. Updated March 15, 2012. Accessed June 17, 2013.
Viral meningitis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php. Updated June 17, 2010. Accessed June 17, 2013.
Last reviewed June 2013 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.